Let’s Watch the Old Year Die, With a Fond Goodbye

by Nancy Bestor

2018 is over, and I’m reminded of the saying “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” It was a year that had a few challenges, and I’m not even talking about politics. Dear friends struggled with health issues, we said farewell to some local retail neighbors, and the wildfires of the West Coast wreaked havoc with our fresh air, and with some of our summer business as well.

But perhaps these lessons will remind us (or me anyway) that I have to remember what I’m thankful for. Because the truth is, I am blessed. Bob and I have lived for 25 years in a great small town.  We’ve raised our daughters in a community that cares, and as they embark on their lives in Portland and Seattle, I hope they can keep some of that small town community in their hearts.  In February, it will be 25 years that we’ve been running Travel Essentials. I’m certain in 1994 I didn’t imagine that we would be here 25 years later. But let’s be honest, when I was 27 years old, I didn’t picture myself as a 52-year-old woman with grey hair either.

Being a small independent retailer sounds glamorous. Or at least it did 25 years ago. Yes, I’m my own boss. I can make my own hours, and run my business the way I want to. But when I have to do something that I don’t like, I can’t pawn it off on the boss, because I am the boss. And it does have its challenges in the world of online corporate giant retailers too. But the negatives are far outweighed by the positives.

Every day, delightful long-time customers come in and tell us about their upcoming travels, or regale us with great stories of recent adventures. They ask about our kids, show us pictures of their grand-babies, let us pet their dogs, and remind us that good people are everywhere.

We work side-by-side with amazing coworkers who make us laugh and brighten our days. Our employees treat Travel Essentials like it is their own business, and I’d like to think that most, if not all, of our coworkers are also our friends.

And the people of our city care about their community. So many people have stopped in to check on our business after the summer smoke set everyone back. That heartfelt concern makes it somewhere I want to keep living and working.

Bob, Emily, Sarah and I have a family tradition that the four of us, and only the four of us, work together in the store on Christmas Eve. I was joking with our daughters about that recently, saying “some families hike or play games on Christmas Eve. Our family works.” They both said it’s a tradition that they love, and there’s no where else they’d rather be. Truth be told, I feel the same way.

We’ll look forward to seeing more of you in 2019, along with your grand-babies, your dogs, and your amazing travel stories. Happy New Year, from our family to yours.

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Three Delightful Days in Mexico City

Bob and I recently returned from a two-week trip to Mexico (read all about it in our Winter Newsletter here). We spent time in Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, and three delightful days in one of our new favorite cities, Mexico City. It was our second visit to Mexico’s capital, and we ate delicious food, visited interesting markets and museums, and stayed at our most favorite bed and breakfast ever, The Red Tree House.

Mexico City has it all. Great food, compelling culture, and a cosmopolitan big-city vibe. With a population of more than eight million, there is always something to do and see. One highlight of our visit was a morning at the Jamaica Market, recommended by Rachael, a super Red Tree House employee. We were looking for a true locals market, not necessarily to shop, but to people watch and browse the stalls that are filled with local delicacies and products, and the Jamaica Market covered all the bases. It is well known for its flower market, and with Dia de Los Muertos just a few days away, it was overflowing with red and yellow marigolds for purchase. But the Jamaica Market offers much more than flowers. It has terrific stalls offering meat, produce, souvenirs and more. We ate an early lunch at Rossy, a food stall that serves up delicious huaraches (masa dough and smashed pinto beans), nopales (cactus) and more, right in the heart of the market.

Another outstanding experience was a visit to the Museo de El Carmen, a former Carmelite Monastery. With beautiful courtyards, religious artifacts and great architecture, this museum is not to be missed. There’s a crypt below the museum too, with 12 mummies on display in beautiful, velvet lined coffins. Although it’s slightly out of the downtown area, the Museo de El Carmen has no entry fee and is well worth an Uber ride of $12.

We also spent about an hour in the Museo del Objecto del Objeto (Museum of Ordinary Objects). Well curated, and well displayed, the ordinary objects in the museum include sneakers, shaving implements, kitchen appliances, clothing, furniture, and more. Quirky, yet fascinating, the museum is located in a “protected” Art Nouveau building in Mexico City’s beautiful Condesa neighborhood.

We ate a delicious dinner in the Condesa neighborhood, at MeroToro, another recommendation from the Red Tree House. The restaurant was filled with locals, and we tucked into inventive dishes that included scallops in mole, and mushroom parmesan risotto. We also ate fantastic al pastor tacos at another spot in the Condesa, Taqueria El Greco. Who knew that a mash up of Greek and Mexican food could be so good? Delicious traditional taco meat served on not so traditional pita bread. They were better than I ever imagined they could be. We tried a few delicacies in the Condesa as well, including local tequila, mezcal and pulque. Pulque is something I don’t need to drink on a regular basis, as it tastes a lot like what you would imagine something made from fermented sap of agave would taste like. We also drank mezcal with a side of worm salt, not bad at all if you don’t think about the fact that there are worms in the salt. The tequila, and of course the beer, I do recommend.

Speaking of the Condesa neighborhood, it’s the location of our favorite bed and breakfast EVER—The Red Tree House. If you’re not familiar with this establishment, you might take a look at their Trip Advisor reviews. More than 1,100 reviewers give the Red Tree House five stars, and we concur. The staff is outstanding, the rooms and courtyard beautifully designed, and the daily included breakfast and happy hour all but guarantee you’ll meet fascinating people and make new friends as well. We can’t speak highly enough of this great B&B.

Mexico City has my heart, and my stomach as well. We will definitely return again.

Got the Gate on the Golden Gate

As a Bay Area native, I’d like to think I know all the great places to check out in San Francisco, Marin, and the East Bay, but the truth is, I’ve lived in Oregon for 25 years now, so my list of favorite spots may be a little outdated. Thus it was fun when I found two “new to me” places in the Bay on a recent trip to visit family. One I knew existed, but had just never checked out, but the other was a complete surprise.

I’ve always wanted to hike in San Francisco’s Lands End. I’ve been near the trail, but have never seen the Sutro Baths up close, nor hiked on the Lands End trail proper. It’s so beautiful, and if you’re there on a fog-free day, the views are some of the best San Francisco has to offer. My sister and I started at the parking lot near the Cliff House. We first walked down to the remains of the Sutro Baths, once a public indoor saltwater swimming pool. Built in 1896, all that remains of the baths today are pools of saltwater and crumbling cement walls. The walls are easy to walk on, you just have to watch your step for rebar and holes. And the location is terrific.

From the Sutro Baths, it’s very easy to pick up the path of the Land’s End hiking trail, a 3 ½ ish mile loop trail, with many sets of stairs, and several offshoots that get you closer to the water, and even to a beach or two. The trail offers outstanding views of the Golden Gate Bridge (if the fog doesn’t hide it that is), as well as bits of three sunken ships at low tide. All three ships crashed in the 1920-1930’s, and sunk just off the coast. Additionally, you can see the remains of the Miles Rock lighthouse, now just a short and squat tower on top of Miles Rock, with a helicopter pad on top. This is a popular trail and it was busy on our Saturday morning visit. There are lots of dogs on leashes as well.

My surprise find of the Bay Area was Oakland’s Lake Merritt Bonsai Garden. My parents and I had taken a picnic lunch to Lake Merritt, where I got to hear details of my parents early days, including a look at the outside of an apartment my father lived in 60 years ago. We walked around parts of the Lake, and checked out the Science Center and the Boating Center, and we also discovered the Bonsai Garden, something I never knew existed (it’s only been open 15 years, so that’s probably why I’d never heard of it).

The free garden is the only all-volunteer bonsai garden in the United States. Nearly 100 bonsai are on display at all times, and another 100 are in reserve. It includes a 1,600 year old tree, given to the US Ambassador to China during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, as well as beautiful garden architecture, like the classical Japanese Mas Imazumi Gate, which is made with joinery woodworking and has no visible glue, nails or screws. The garden is beautiful, and quite peaceful. It’s a great place for a stroll on a beautiful sunny day in Oakland.

I’m sure there are numerous other spots in the San Francisco Bay Area that I know nothing about. I look forward to exploring more of them on future visits.

Communicating in Any Language

I always try to talk to cab drivers. First off, it’s polite. Secondly, so many of them have fascinating stories to tell. Our cab rides usually occur in Las Vegas (we have to go there on business), where English is the language of choice. Over the years, we’ve heard the abbreviated life stories of drivers from places like Yemen, Somalia, Turkey, Colombia, and countless other far-flung countries.

We briefly discussed Google Translate in last month’s eNews. And lo and behold, just about the time that email hit the interwebs, Nancy and I were putting Google Translate to good use in an Uber. It was during a 2.5-hour ride from Queretaro Airport to Guanajuato in Mexico. Soon after loading our bags into the trunk and hitting the road, our driver surprised us by launching Google Translate and then peppering us with questions. And amazingly, despite the major linguistic barrier, we had a nice “chat.” Although it was a bit slow, we covered all the topics you’d expect: hometowns, family, sports, weather, and more. Freddy has driven for Uber for about two years. He immigrated to Mexico from Cuba seven years ago and has a wife and two children. Freddy hates the cold, prefers Mexican cuisine to Cuban, and his son prefers baseball to soccer. You already know all about us, so I’ll spare our side of the conversation.

Even in a moving car in the dark, it was easy. We used the voice option of the app and everything we said into the phone was repeated in Spanish by the phone. Yes, we really do live in the future. It’s not perfect, as some of the things Freddy said did not translate well into English, and therefore I’d guess the same was true the other way around as well. But it was fun and informative anyway. Google Translate is now part of our bag of essential travel tools.

Ignoring a Gate Check Bag Request – Nancy Learns How to Break the Rules

by Robert Bestor

I am so proud of my wife. She has come such a long way. While she still has work to do, she is no longer quite the rule follower that she used to be. Best of all her progress is something that Travel Essentials just might learn something from.

On our recent Mexico adventure, we ran in to a little trouble with our carry-ons. We were boarding an Aeroméxico flight from Mexico City to Queretaro, and at the top of the boarding ramp, an Aeroméxico employee pulled us aside and said we’d have to gate check our bags, as the plane was going to be “very full.” It seemed pretty arbitrary, as other passengers had bags of similar size, and yet we were the only ones that were stopped. Nevertheless, he wrapped a gate check tag around the handles of each of our Briggs & Riley 21” carry-ons and gave us each a claim receipt.

What to do? We did not want to check our bags. It goes against everything we stand for! On top of that our bags are within Aeroméxico’s carry-on regulations, so we shouldn’t have to check them, right?

Here’s where it gets crazy. While we waited on the ramp to board, my wife, the rule follower, said “I’m just gonna cover this tag up with my hand and walk right on board.” Whoa! What just happened?

So that’s what we did. We held our bags with our hands cleverly covering up those gate check tags and walked right on board and nobody said anything to us – not the baggage handler at the end of the ramp, not the flight attendant who greeted us as we boarded, and not the flight attendant at the back of the plane who was assisting other passengers. After easily fitting both bags into the overhead compartment, we simply sat down and got ready for our short flight. No muss, no fuss and no checked baggage! Nancy may have sweat through her short sleeved top with worry, but that’s what deodorant is for.

So the next time an airline employee tries to make you gate check your bag, you just might consider looking deep inside yourself and finding your inner Nancy Bestor and see if you can get away with not following their arbitrary rules and random enforcement.

He’s A Pinball Wizard – There Has Got to be a Twist

One of my stand out teen memories is playing on a girls’ volleyball team and going out to eat as a group before or after the games. Because if you know me at all, you’ll know I am all about the food and not the competition. One particular time, we went to a pizza parlor. I don’t remember the pizza, but I do remember playing Ms. Pac Man in the back of the restaurant. I also remember a young man who finished playing right before I did. But he didn’t put his initials into the high score column at the end of his game. So I walked to his table to tell him in my most flirtatious yet squeaky 13-year-old voice that he’d forgotten to put in his initials, and he told me, in a deep, and dare I say sexy, musical voice (that I can clearly remember 38 years later), “put in yours.” I swooned my way back to Ms. Pac Man and did just that.

I’m sure you’re wondering how this relates in any way to travel. Fair point. But I did get to play Ms. Pac Man recently, at an arcade bar in Portland, and all the memories came flooding back. There were no men with sexy, musical voices nearby (sorry Bob), but I got to play my favorite video game, and drink a beer at the same time. How fun is that? Quarter World Arcade, on Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland, Oregon, is a great place to spend an evening. Bob, our daughter Sarah, her boyfriend Harry, and I played a few buckets of quarters on old video games and classic arcade games too.  We took turns competing in basketball Pop-A-Shot, Ms. Pac Man and Pac Man, and Space Invaders, to name a few. The quarters went just as fast as the beers.

Then, while passing through Las Vegas recently, Bob and I stopped with his sister and her husband at the Pinball Hall of Fame. On the outskirts of the Las Vegas Strip, this 10,000 square foot warehouse space has more than 150 pinball machines, all fully operational and all available to play. Some date from the 1950s, while the “newest” are from the 1990s. They range in price from $.25 to $1 per game. It’s dark inside this gaming hall, but shouldn’t a Pinball Hall of Fame be dark? I played an old wooden baseball arcade game, a similarly old bowling one, and many others too. 

Both Quarter World and the Pinball Hall of Fame seem like they are run by people who enjoy old-fashioned video and arcade games. I don’t guess that either place is making money hand over fist, but in both places, the star of the show is definitely the games. If you’ve got some time on your hands in Portland or Vegas, and enjoy a good video or arcade game, I’d encourage you to check these places out. And if you hear a sexy musical voice playing Ms. Pac Man, please let him know I’m no longer available, so he’ll have to put his own initials into the high score column.

Notes:

Both QuarterWorld and The Pinball Hall of Fame are free to enter, but be prepared to drop some change on the machines.

QuarterWorld is all ages until 8pm, but then after it’s 21 and older.

Walking the Glaciers of Iceland

When the opportunity to hike on a glacier while carrying an ice axe presents itself, I am a definite YES. You see, I think of myself as an adventurous person. Now, I don’t downhill ski (too fast), I don’t scuba dive (because sharks), and I don’t bungee jump, rock climb, or parachute either (too barfy, too hard and too high). But in my mind, I am really adventurous. IMG_5983

So when Bob suggested we take a glacier hiking tour in Iceland, I knew it was right up my alley. It sounded simply like adventurous walking to me, and I am a champion walker. When we arrived at the Sólheimajökull glacier, about 2 ½ hours outside of Reykjavík, the first thing we did was don disaster prevention equipment, including helmets, crampons, and safety harnesses. We also picked out our ice axes. Adventurous, right? We then started our walk to the glacier, where we saw first hand how glaciers form, and sadly how they melt. Side note – the Sólheimajökull glacier is currently melting at about the size of an Olympic swimming pool every year.

We learned why glaciers look blue and how crevasses are formed. We walked on stairs carved out of the ice, IMG_5941and we looked totally bad ass in our helmets, crampons and harnesses, while carrying our ice axes. We never needed our harnesses, except when our guide let us hang (slightly) over the edge of a deep crevasse while she held us with rope tied to our harness. And we never needed our ice axes either, as our guide made sure we stayed on thick and solid enough ice that we were never in danger of falling through. I did use my axe as a walking stick a couple of times, because even with crampons, there were times that the ice was a little slippery, and it was great to have the ice axe to help with balance.

Our tour group was just Bob and me, one other couple, and our sweet Icelandic tour guide. We saw a few groups on the glacier that day, all with 15+ people in their hiking tour. I’m glad ours was small, and that our tour guide was incredibly knowledgeable too.

This was the perfect tour for me. It could have been a little longer, and perhaps a little more adventurous, but it started snowing after we had been on the glacier for about two hours, and one thing I don’t like in my super adventurous life is to be cold, so I think it worked out perfectly.

Notes:

• Our glacier hike tour was booked through Icelandic Mountain Guides. It included stops at two waterfalls and a “secret” hot spring, the Secret Lagoon geothermal pool in Fludir. No food was included on the tour, but we did stop at a Traveler’s Gas Station/Rest Stop/Grocery Store, where we picked up some expensive sandwiches, chips and drinks. Most things in Iceland are expensive though, so we were prepared.

• Our guide did all the driving, and let me tell you, on our way back to Reykjavík, she drove through a significant blizzard, in the dark. I was glad she was the driver, instead of Bob or I.

• A glacier hike is not for everyone. There is a fair amount of rugged hiking involved, and if balance is a challenge, the ice can be a little slippery, even with crampons.

• We were gone a full day, from 8am to 9pm. The cost of the tour was $330 each. 

• There are many other tour options with Icelandic Mountain Guides, and of course, other guide operators as well. One could tour ice caves (but I’m a little claustrophobic), kayak around glaciers (but motion sickness), and even ice climb (which just sounds hard). I’m certain it’s very obvious to you that glacier walking/hiking was just the right speed for this adventurous gal.